Tuesday, July 10, 2018

My Carmilla (opinion)

Opinions ahoy!

(spoilers too, you've been warned)

As some of you may know, I wrote a play adaptation of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu's gothic classic Carmilla.  A little over four years ago as if this writing, ZJU in North Hollywood produced this play and five other productions followed.  This marked a very powerful achievement in my life, one in effect defining myself as a playwright.

Harlequin Players
2014 production
Within the last year, controversy emerged about my script.  This coincided (I'm not sure this counts as a coincidence, though) with a furor surrounding J.K.Rowling and her reaction to attacks by fans regarding portrayal of the character Dumbledore.  One can get a good precis of the debate here.  I feel my own recent experience echoes that storm very slightly.  Issues involved seem important to me--about the roles of audience and creator, as well as the whole issue of representation.  It pops up in all kinds of places, such as issues involving Lexa in The 100 as well as aspects of the show Supergirl.

Probably the best source of highlighting the controversy involving my own play was voiced in this video review by the divine Maven of the Eventide (I am a huge fan).  In the comments section one can find something said by someone who directed the play and loved it, but agreed the content to be problematical.  Likewise quite by accident I learned of a big online debate via email regarding a community of theatre folk in New York and Chicago after a friend of mine shared information and links about my play with them.  They also had a similar complaint, although most of them admitted to having neither read nor seen the play itself(!).  For the record, Maven both read and watched a taped performance.

Essentially one major argument lay in seeing my adaptation as glorifying, excusing or even fetishing what they see as the narrator Laura's rape by the vampire Carmilla.  To paraphrase, since the bite in this context is seen as sexual and non-consensual yet with Laura enjoying it, I can be seen as a man getting off on the fantasy of a victim enjoying her own sexual assault.

Credit: Richard M. Johnson
ZJU 2014
Likewise another argument focused on representation, i.e. that in some sense my play equates lesbians with Nazis (I moved events of the 1872 novella forward to 1938, soon after Austria joined the Third Reich) or at least with evil and my attempt to make the Nazi character more overtly evil I was too heavy-handed for words.

I do not dismiss these reactions.  I do not however simply accept them without question either.  First, it seems to me an important point that my play was intended as taking place in a profoundly ambiguous universe in terms of morals.  My intention was to disturb, to tell what is in my mind an eerie and tragic romance.  Maven (and methinks others was well) tend to compare my play with the splendid web series also based upon Le Fanu's story, which re-imagines the tale as far more progressive and--vitally--more heroic.  I adore it!  But this is not my play.  Nor should it be.

Apart from the heroic vs tragic nature of these two versions I would point out a structural difference.  In the web series, a moral complexity arose in the fact the villain proved to have a heart-achingly tragic motive.  Understanding that led Laura to forgive and heal her, thus saving the world.  Honestly, this moved me to tears the first time watching it.  My own play, however, by deliberate choice eschewed the notion of any simple good or evil or any kind of straightforward happy ending.  Almost the only heroics in the play lie in an attempt by Laura to save Carmilla from Spielsdorf--a attempt which fails.  Likewise Carmilla insists Laura stay out of the fight so she won't get hurt.  Both actions have their echoes in the web series, but my play takes place in a darker context, a tale told amid the ruins of the most devastating war in human history about events inside one of the most evil and psychotic regimes the world has ever known.

Interestingly, I found in readings that Spielsdorf always came across as sympathetic, despite his overt identification as a Nazi, his donning as SS uniform, his ruthless murder of our heroine's love interest.  We are programmed by our cultural context to see the vampire hunter as a "good guy."  Hence I had to make him profoundly creepy in other ways for audiences to see him as an evil.  Honestly I do believe a problem some have in viewing my play is the notion of degrees and types of evil--because honestly isn't the evil of a predatory animal who must hunt to survive of a profoundly different order than that of a political system with modern weapons dedicated to the ideology of a psychopath?  Yet I get the impression some find this notion alien, and find the idea of any lesbian character partaking of any evil at all unacceptable on some level.

Credit: Richard M. Johnson
ZJU 2014
I recently made some changes to the script, hopefully bringing out that moral ambiguity in sharper relief--specifically by pointing how much human horror the Allies committed in their path to victory against Hitler.  My goal was to portray everyone as tainted by some evil, just as even the most evil characters show what we hopefully feel as virtue.  Carmilla feels regret, genuine love, suffers as well as harms.  Spielsdorf loves his country, is a loyal friend, understandably wants to end the depredations of a monster.  (Parenthetically, I find most actors resist exploring the dark aspects of Laura's father, for which I must take some responsibility.)

In that context, allow me to defend the "rape" criticism.  Even if not equated with anything sexual, the attack of a vampire is assault.  But part of the allure of the vampire is the Danger.  For over two centuries women as well as men have found this aspect dominating our literary re-imagination of the vampire myth--the attractiveness of that danger, that alienness which also means alienation. It makes for one reason we virtually embed an exploration of loneliness into vampire fiction, especially by introducing love stories into the mix from Bram Stoker's Dracula to The Vampire Diaries to Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  Not that all vampire stories do or should follow that model, but plenty do and for a reason.  But metaphorically as well as dramatically, a vampire without fangs is not sexy.

Credit: Richard M. Johnson
Actaeon Players 2015
The relationship between Laura and Carmilla--which frankly I see as far more ambiguous and even mutual than presented in the first reading of the novella (further readings--the norm for the period--reveals Laura as an unreliable narrator in my view)--is never ever vanilla.  It is meant to be disturbing, an encounter with the uncanny by someone young and naive who is never the same again.  Le Fanu seems to have fashioned his vampire story with echoes of Irish folk tales wherein a mortal encounters one of the Fey, who must remain perilous by their very nature (Tolkien's elves, while complex, prove significantly less strange or lusty than their Celtic forebears). I followed the original in my own adaptation.  Here the darkness is more than the absence of light, far more than a collection of negative impulses.  Like death and pain and fear and even things like humiliation have their beauty, their allure.  Some understandably flee when such approaches.  Others watch and keep their distance.  Still others wander along the edge, sometimes venturing inside--even as others either willingly or not become part of that darkness.  More, to have all those reactions in a single individual seems eminently human.  As a different video review of my play noted, my Laura and Carmilla play the game of submission and domination together.  One can argue with justice Laura must be at a disadvantage given her lack of experience, but at a certain point this itself becomes an orthodoxy rather than an observation of life. In this context, Carmilla hopefully comes across as a mentor of sorts to Laura--a disturbing one, to be sure but then that is the point.

 Much is often made of framing elements of stories.  I agree, for whatever that's worth.  My point remains that my framing of this love story as disturbing has little if anything to do with orientation.  I approach the story, as I believe many do in this day and age, seeing the gay nature of Laura and Carmilla's love as just another obstacle they must endure--because they dwell in an overtly racist and misogynistic place.  This last seems to me vital, and pretty explicit within the play's text. Alterations (mostly fairly slight) I've made for the third edition of Carmilla hopefully do make all the above clearer.

Many thanks for reading this all the way through and allowing me to get this off my chest.  Also many thanks to those who gave their opinions and feedback, which I as an author crave.  Hopefully I did not come across as too totally dismissive of genuine concerns.

Anyone interested can obtain rights to my play at Off The Wall Plays.

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